Culture Wars: Alt+R vs. Ctrl_L, and what the Social Sciences can do about it

By Suzanne Newcombe. Part 2 of a Series (read Part 1 here)

The concept of the Alt+R has become familiar with the ascendency of Donald Trump to the office of the President of the United States. The need for an alternative to the political and economic status quo is felt on all sides of political persuasions. What to do about this situation though, often appears harder to propose and even harder to agree upon. I will first describe the current ‘culture wars’ as a conflict between an Alt+R and a Ctrl+L – before arguing for the importance of teaching and using the methods of the Social Sciences and Humanities to navigate this environment.

The Alt+R is associated with abrasive ‘plain-talking’ populist ‘truths’ and cries of ‘fake news’ when facts are interpreted with what is seen to be the wrong conclusion. The Alt+R uses a variety of strategies to delegitimize and silence opposing political views, from promoting its own ‘trusted’ and ‘unbiased’ sources such as Breitbart, Fox News and Citizen’s United political ‘exposes’ to decrying critical news sources as ‘FAKE NEWS’, to blatant ad hominem attacks, in the USA, against  figures like Senator Rand Paul, Hilary Clinton or Arianna Huffington.

While this vitriolic discourse is more intense on the other side of the pond, there are echoes of it in European politics with the various populist movements from the English Defence League, UKIP, to France’s National Front to Greece’s Golden Dawn.

Although the Alt+R has embraced this term as one of positive self-identity, one can also identify what I will term a “Ctr+L” – those self-identifying on the left of the political spectrum who also attempt to silence opposition.  At times, traditional media sources have described the Alt+R’s message as unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, discrediting the message without examination of the evidence.

University engagement in no-platforming and silencing of opposition through noisy protests and chants, removing the books of Holocaust deniers from open-access shelves, and an enforcement of ‘politically correct’ language, provides ammunition for the Alt+R’s impressions of the existence of a ‘liberal thought police’.

The Ctr+L is not above riots and violence, as events surrounding schedule talks of (then) Breitbart News spokesperson Milo Yiannopoulos at California Universities UCLA, Davis and Berkeley during early 2017 and some G20 protests have shown.

Photograph of a burning police cruiser at the G20 protests in 2010 which turned violent in Toronto.  Image by Mark Mozaz Wallis (Creative Commons).

So what can we, as educators, do in a time when (apparently) the ‘authority of experts’ is derided? Continue reading

Culture Wars 2.0 and the End of Faith

By Paul-Francois Tremlett. Part 1 of a series.

The recent election of Donald Trump to Presidential office in the USA and the referendum to leave the EU in Britain have been described as evidence for an outbreak of new culture wars. The term ‘culture wars’ has been used to describe conflicts in late 19th century England and late 20th century America between secular and religious populations over issues such as gender and sexuality and the status of religious and scientific truth-claims. The rise of the self-styled new atheism was arguably part of the same phenomenon.

Interestingly, the linkage of Trump and Brexit to a new bout of culture wars has no obvious link to any religion-secular flashpoints. The 2016 report by Kirby Swales on the Brexit vote by the National Centre for Social Research concluded that “the EU Referendum was highly divisive, highlighting a wide range of social, geographical and other differences in Great Britain. This was less a traditional left-right battle, and more about identity and values (liberalism vs authoritarianism). It is a strong sign that the so-called ‘culture wars’ of the US have arrived in Great Britain in earnest” (2016: 27). Rich Lowry in The Guardian argued in similar fashion that Trump’s election in the USA exposed new fissures around populism, immigration and nationalism. But, if the new culture wars do not reproduce the religious-secular flash-points of the past, what do they do?

A key feature of the Trump and Brexit election campaigns were claims about fake news and alternative facts. If the arch-postmodernists Jean Baudrillard and Jean-François Lyotard are to be believed, this is because the modern narrative of incremental progress and knowledge is breaking down—if not, indeed, going into reverse. Where classical sociology predicted secularization—a terminal loss of faith in religious institutions—postmodern sociology predicts a loss of faith in all the other institutions as well, from the banks, universities, newspapers and courts to the politicians. The election of Trump and the Brexit vote point to this wider breakdown. The Occupy movement—about which I’ve conducted research in London and Hong and Kong (Tremlett 2012 and 2016)—registered global distrust in economic institutions. The camps that sprang up in cities around the world were attempts to find new sources of authenticity in speech and the face-to-face intimacies of camp life, and to imagine economies not in terms of competition, but rather cooperation. Ultimately, of course, the protests failed both in terms of their primary aim of bringing about political change to rein in the banks and in terms of their secondary aim of restoring peoples trust that they were part of a common society. But the movement did provide an imaginary which formed around the preference for close, horizontal relationships over distant, vertical or hierarchical ones.

The new culture wars, then, may not be about religion, but they are about faith and loss of faith: the loss of faith in existing institutions to speak sincerely and the process of trying to discover something or someone new to place trust in.

Continue reading

Conference Announcement | Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective: Publics and Performances

Kents Hill, Milton Keynes | February 19-21, 2018


Themes | Education, Media, Pilgrimage, Politics, Ritual, Spirituality

Keynote Speakers | Bettina Schmidt, Philip Williamson, Steven Sutcliffe

At a time when the public role of the University is under increasing scrutiny, how can we ensure that research and teaching about religions reaches new publics? What can we do to enhance religious literacy both within and beyond religious and non-religious communities? How is ritual and performance involved in communication between religious communities, the academy, policy makers and the broader public? Are there ways in which we can learn from the past in better understanding such channels of communication?

Bringing historical perspective to the contemporary role of religion in the public sphere, this conference will include contributions from practitioners and third-sector organisations, who bring their perspectives to the academy to consider the public impact of Religious Studies.

The Open University invites proposals for papers and panels. Topics may include, but are not limited to:

  • Secular and political rituals
  • Faith-based organisations in the secular state
  • Religious rhetoric in the public sphere
  • The changing historical relationship between religion and the state
  • Ritual theory
  • Religion and the Media
  • Spirituality and well-being
  • Religious literacy, education and policy-making
  • The role of inter-faith groups
  • Pilgrimage
  • Secularisation
  • Historical case-studies on religion, performance and the public

Full Call for Papers here, or visit

Abstracts (200 words) should be submitted to by 30th October 2017. Papers will be 20 minutes, with 10 minutes for discussion. The organisers also welcome proposals for panels. Panels will be 90 minutes, normally including three papers. Panel proposals should include panel title, abstracts for each paper and the name of the convener/chair. We also welcome proposals and suggestions for alternative and innovative formats.

Deadline for paper/panel submissions: 30th October 2017

Notification of acceptance of papers/panels: by 15th November 2017

Online registration for conference open from: 30th October 2017

For any enquiries, please contact the Conference Organisers Paul-François Tremlett and David G. Robertson on

Three Minute Theories | Paul-Francois Tremlett on Max Weber

Welcome to a new video series here at the Open University – Three Minute Theories! They’re the punk rock 7-inch of critical thinking.

To kick us off, here’s our very own Paul-Francois Tremlett on why Max Weber remains an important and highly relevant thinker today.

New videos every two weeks. Share widely!Why is Weber important to you? What theories or theorists should we cover in future videos?

Flying Saucers and Religious Studies

By David G. Robertson

On June 24th, 1947 – seventy years ago on Saturday – Kenneth Arnold was flying his small Cessna over Washington’s Cascade Mountains when saw something odd in the sky. What looked like nine silver crescents could be seen flying in formation at a height and speed the pilot and Deputy Sheriff knew were then impossible. They seemed to move with an odd bobbing movement, which Arnold would later describe as “like a saucer skipping across water” when he reported the sighting. But the phrase was misunderstood by the local press, and soon people all over the US were seeing “flying saucers”. The Roswell Incident, now probably the most famous UFO story, even more so than Arnold’s epoch-making sighting, was reported on July 7th, only thirteen days later.

Thus was born the most lasting and influential new mythology of the modern age.

The UFO narrative has been prominent in the development of new religions since then. Some new religions made UFOs central to their beliefs, such as the Raelians or Heaven’s Gate. In many other cases, UFOs were adopted into already-developed theologies, like in the Nation of Islam. Less obvious, though arguably more influential, was the role they played in late Theosophical thought. Not only were the majority of early contactees Theosophists, but they played a large role in the development of the Findhorn Foundation, and thus the development of the New Age. But here, I want to suggest a couple of more fundamental reasons why UFOs are important for the Study of contemporary religion in historical context. Continue reading

Material Culture in Saint Mary’s Lancaster and Bath Abbey

By Marion Bowman

I was in Lancaster recently to give a paper in University’s Religion, Politics & Philosophy Seminar series. While I was there, I called in at St Mary’s and enjoyed this striking papercut artwork in a church clearly committed to using material culture creatively.


Cathedrals & churches seem increasingly to be venues for thought-provoking art. Here in Bath Abbey, an installation of butterflies is used to make points about migration.

FASS Showcase | A227 Exploring Religion

Marion Bowman, John Maiden and Paul-Francois Tremlett recently appeared on the Arts and Social Science Showcase at the Student Hub to present the new course, Exploring Religion (A227). The module challenges various widely held assumptions about religions and the study of religion, and engages students with three core questions: What is religion? How do we study religion? Why should we study religion?

Millennialism and Violence? | Roundtable discussion

David Robertson recently chaired a roundtable discussion entitled Millennialism and Violence? with Eileen Barker, Moojan Momen, Joseph Webster and Tristan Sturm, at the CenSAMM conference at the Panacea Trust in Bedford:

Descriptions of the End Times are full of violent imagery, of mass destruction through earthquakes, tidal waves, fire and ice. These images are written deeply into our culture through the book of Revelation, but are by no means limited to the Christian imagination. Often, our idea of modern millennial groups is informed by images of violent confrontations between them and the state, for example at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, or of mass suicide, such as with Heaven’s Gate or the People’s Temple at Jonestown.

Are we right to connect millennialism and violence? Are these groups typical, or rare exceptions, magnified out of proportion by the lens of the media – and scholarship? How do we account for the popularity ofmillennialismm outside of religious traditions, new, extreme or otherwise?

You can find an audio version and a full transcript over at the Religious Studies Project. The episode was produced in collaboration with CenSAMM, the Centre for the Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements.

Hinduism in Europe | Conference Report

By Suzanne Newcombe

Academics often talk about the importance of scholarly dialogue. More often than not we talk with our colleagues through writing, with large gaps of time and space. Therefore, it was a breath of fresh air to be able to participate in Knut Jacobson and Ferdinando Sardella’s initiative on Hinduism in Europe ( This ambitious project will eventually result in a comprehensive edited volume published by Brill, with thematic chapters as well as country profiles covering ‘Hinduism’ in Europe.

‘Hinduism’ is widely acknowledged to be a problematic term. The conference included self-conscious discussions of the creation of Indology and the academic study of Hinduism. This is something that was grappled with differently in each national context, though patterns and international exchanges are also central to understanding how Hinduism has been defined and understood.

In many northern European post-soviet states, there are still no substantial groups of Indian migrants. Until recently in this context, Hinduism was only represented by academic study and in esoteric religiosity.  After 1989, a number new transnational groups have established a presence most of these areas, the most common being ISKCON, Sahaja Yoga, Transcendental Mediation and the Art of Living Foundation.

Yet even amongst the Eastern European states, experiences of Hinduism have varied considerably. ISKCON has found particular success in the Ukraine. In Bulgaria, there is a long history of yoga as sport in Adult Education. Various Romanian individuals have consistently turning towards India for inspiration despite considerable practical and political pressures.  The contributions on Hinduism in Russia and Turkey were especially valuable for bridging the mixed experiences in the geographically continuous – but culturally and religiously diverse – territory bridging Europe and Asia.

In some countries, specific colonial histories have created immigrant groups whose voices dominate national discussions on Hinduism. In Britain, the well-organized voices of BAPS Swaminarayan and ISKCON dominate national debates on Hinduism. This often partially silences the more inward-facing communities of Tamil refugees who fled Sri Lanka’s Civil War.  It is this Tamil-refugee population that forms the majority of Indian groups in France and Germany.

In contrast, Hinduism in The Netherlands is more defined by its particular colonial legacy of Indian immigrants from Suriname, originally indentured labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In all national contexts, we heard about the negotiations between specific groups and the legal and cultural restrictions on building public temples, or holding large public events.

I was asked to contribute on the subject of ‘Yoga in Europe’, which I know mostly from a British context and English-language based research.  Therefore, it was refreshing to have input from such a variety of political, cultural and linguistic contexts. Other thematic contributions also enriched my understanding, notably papers elucidating the esoteric and Ayurvedic narratives across Europe.

I left enriched, beginning a process of re-evaluating my understandings. I now have a greater appreciation of distinct transnational flows and specific migration patterns; I have more knowledge of local histories, the diversity of related linguistic and conceptual categories and country-specific political pressures.

This conference was a model in the importance of considering contemporary religion in historical – and comparative – perspective.